Three Squeaky Squirrels

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The quaa is essentially a longer version of the kuk, but it can be varying lengths. Both kuks and quaas can be heard in the example below. In addition to these vocal alarms, squirrels have two types of tail signals. A twitch looks like a wave running through the tail. It's a controlled movement in which the path of the tail tip usually forms a simple arc. A flag is a more conspicuous whipping motion. During a flag see video below , the squirrel's tail tip can move in arcs, figure eights, circles, and various squiggles. McRae and Green tested whether these different vocal and visual alarms were associated with particular types of predators.

They studied a wild population of gray squirrels on the University of Miami campus. These squirrels have two main types of predators: aerial predators, such as hawks, and terrestrial predators, particularly domestic cats.

Three Squeaky Squirrels | Daniel Dennis | Bookbaby | | E-Sentral Ebook Portal

The researchers exposed the squirrels to five kinds of potentially threatening stimuli. They simulated a hawk approach by throwing a styrofoam glider painted to look like a hawk in the air. They simulated a cat attack with a remote-controlled model cat on wheels, driven toward the squirrel. To see if the manner of approach terrestrial versus aerial or physical resemblance to a predator affected the squirrels' alarms, the researchers also presented the squirrels with an object that didn't resemble any predators at all — a red ball — and either rolled it towards the squirrels or threw it overhead like the model hawk.

Overall, McRae and Green found the squirrels have an alarm system with different degrees of specificity. Some, but not all, of the alarm signals were associated with predator type, and combinations of tail signals and vocalizations were more strongly associated with threats than either type of signal alone. Of the three vocalizations and two tail movements, only tail flags and moans were associated strongly with specific predators.

Moans by themselves were specific to the aerially approaching model hawk. Tail flags showed a moderate association with the terrestrially approaching model cat. Considered by themselves, kuks served as a generic alarm signal. Squirrels made quaas more often in response to terrestrial threats, but sometimes used them when an aerial threat approached, as well.

When McRae and Green looked at the two tail signals by themselves, the twitches were used in lots of different circumstances, sometimes even when there was no predator present. Considering the vocal and tail alarms together drastically increased one's ability to predict what was eliciting the calls.

If terrestrial and aerial attacks are equally common, and a squirrel randomly guesses which type of threat is causing the alarm, it would be wrong about half the time. The moral is, it's important to both look and listen if we want to know the whole story. The mixed specificity of these signals allows squirrels to adjust the specificity of their alarms and also their own risk of being detected by predators.

Using both auditory and visual alarms together might reinforce the signal, making the alarms more noticeable. But who are these alarm signals meant for?

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  • One possibility is that they function to let other nearby squirrels know a predator is lurking. However, it's also possible that the alarms are meant to let the predator itself know that the squirrel has spotted it. Broadband sounds like kuks and quaas are easy to localize. These sounds, and conspicuous visual displays like tail flags, advertise the signaler's location. If an ambush predator like a cat knows its potential prey has spotted it, it might give up and look elsewhere for prey it can take by surprise.

    One study showed leopards stalking monkeys in West Africa left the area more rapidly if the monkeys gave leopard-specific alarm calls. Domestic cats might also be deterred if they know they've been spotted by a squirrel. The narrow-frequency moans are more difficult to localize. Given how specific the moans are to aerial threats, this might be a way for the squirrel to give an alarm call without advertising its location.